Kurdistan and the National Question

For a Socialist Federation of the Middle East

This article is translated from Bolschewik (No. 2), journal of Gruppe Spartakus.

The division of the world under imperialism has subjected many peoples to massacres, oppression and forced population transfers. Few nations have suffered more from the effects of big power diplomacy than the Kurds, a Near Eastern nation of well over 20 million people. In 1923, Kurdistan was torn into four parts by the Treaty of Lausanne, which the victorious allies used to carve up the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

The vast majority of Kurds live in a territory divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. These regimes, themselves dependent on imperialism, have frequently turned Kurdistan into a battleground among themselves. In these conflicts, most recently the bloody Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s, Kurds have often been set against Kurds. When the capitalist strongmen of the region are not at each others’ throats, they cooperate in persecuting and oppressing their Kurdish minorities.

In the 19th century, Kurdish principalities revolted against the increasingly onerous demands of the Ottoman Empire. In the early years of the 20th century, a layer of Kurdish intellectuals launched a movement for a separate Kurdish state. This national movement developed in tandem with the Young Turk movement in Turkey. After the outbreak of World War I, which pitted the Ottoman Empire against Czarist Russia, the leaders of the Young Turks (including Mustafa Kemal—later known as Kemal Atatürk) launched a campaign against the Christian Armenians, who were accused of siding with the Russians. This nationalist campaign was animated by pro–Islamic propaganda aimed at the Turkish and Kurdish masses. The result was the first state sponsored genocide of the 20th century. At least a million Armenians (as well as other Christians, for example, the Assyrians) were killed in the course of the government’s campaign to expel them from Turkey. Kurdish nationalists today prefer to ignore or deny the fact that Kurds also played a role in the Turkish state’s genocidal persecution of the Armenians.

In 1920 Atatürk promised a common “state of Turks and Kurds” to win the support of the Kurdish clans in resisting the harsh terms of the Treaty of Sèvres [the equivalent of the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany the year before] and to drive the Greeks out of Asia Minor. Several years later Atatürk rewarded his Kurdish allies (who were by then officially designated merely as “mountain Turks”) with merciless persecution. The teaching of Kurdish in schools was outlawed and it was even forbidden to mention the existence of Kurds or other national minorities within Turkey. Under Atatürk, a series of Kurdish uprisings were brutally suppressed, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds were deported into central and western Turkey.

To date, every Kurdish revolt has hinged on the collaboration of the corrupt Kurdish nationalist leaders with their own rulers, or the imperialist powers, particularly with Britain, France and the U.S. The result has been an unbroken string of crushing defeats for Kurdish self–determination. The Kurdish bourgeois nationalist movement has proved too feeble to struggle independently for its goals.

Kurdish Social Structure—Imposed Underdevelopment

As a result of the division of Kurdistan, each component of the fledgling bourgeoisie was only able to develop through cooperation with the rulers of the states in which Kurds lived. The Kurdish areas are kept in a state of permanent underdevelopment by each of the oppressor states, and primitive agriculture predominates. Modern industry and infrastructure have been developed on a minor scale only where it has been useful for the exploitation of raw materials. In Turkish Kurdistan, for example, only enterprises established by Turks get state aid. Nonetheless, few investments are made in this area because the region is considered too unstable. It is difficult for large Kurdish landowners to invest capital in Kurdistan, and the indigenous bourgeoisie has undergone only the most rudimentary development. Migration from the land to the cities and towns is a widespread phenomenon in all four countries. In Turkey Kurds make up 20 percent of the population, yet only five percent of the proletariat is Kurdish. The Kurdish proletariat exists basically in non–Kurdish areas. One expert on Kurdish society, Martin van Bruinessen, noted: “There is a Kurdish proletariat and also Kurdish industrial capital but both exist outside Kurdistan (Agha, Scheich und Staat).

The old social–economic structures in Kurdistan, the remnants of feudalism, are deliberately preserved. Landlords, sheiks and clan chiefs represent the unimpeachable economic, political and religious authority in society. Kurdish women are trebly oppressed: as women, as Kurds and as workers or peasants. The propertied classes and castes in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey) live from the crumbs of the Turkish bourgeoisie, in exchange for denying their own nationality and participating in the oppression of the other components of the Kurdish nation. The sheiks and clan leaders in South East Kurdistan (Iraq and Iran) are not forced to renounce their nationality, but, to obtain their quota of crumbs, they must prove themselves to be “reliable” Kurds by collaborating with their rulers against the “subversive” Kurds.

Bourgeois Parties of the Kurdish Resistance

Ismail Besicki, who has been repeatedly persecuted by successive Turkish regimes for his important studies on the Kurdish question, describes the Kurdish bourgeoisie as “literally rotten and collapsed.” The weakness of the Kurdish bourgeoisie is revealed by their acceptance of the partition of their nation. None of the bourgeois Kurdish leaders demands anything more than autonomy within the various oppressor states.

The Iraq–based Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP), for example, has always accepted the inviolability of the borders drawn up by the imperialists. Under the flag of “autonomy,” the KDP’s founder, the mullah, Mustafa Barzani, collaborated alternately with Baghdad and Tehran, while always keeping in touch with Washington.

One of the low points of Barzani’s treacherous career was his cooperation with the Shah to crush a Kurdish uprising in Iran in 1966–68. From 1972–75 he presided over Parastin—a security service established with help from the infamous Iranian SAVAK, the CIA and the Israeli Mossad—which aided in the suppression of Kurdish resistance in Iran. In 1975, when the Shah signed a treaty with Iraq, Tehran abruptly ceased cooperation with Barzani; a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Kurds began and the 50,000 fighters of Barzani’s peshmerga were dispersed. Barzani’s successors, his sons Idris and Massud, have pursued identical policies of collaboration and fratricidal strife: during the Iran–Iraq war, they once more sided with Tehran and led Kurds into battle against Kurds.

An important grouping in Iraq–Kurdistan is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), founded in 1975 by Jalal Talabani. Talabani split from the KDP in 1964, blaming Barzani for leading the fight for Kurdish independence “with tribal methods” and for “maintaining the alliance with imperialism” (Kurdistan und die Kurden, Vol. 1). This well–founded accusation didn’t hinder Talabani from forming similar alliances. During the Iran–Iraq war, Talabani first tried to cut a deal with Saddam Hussein in 1983, and then sided with Khomeini (and Barzani) against Baghdad and the Iranian KDP (whose leader, Abdulrahman Ghassemlou, had aligned himself with Saddam Hussein).

The bourgeois Kurdish parties in Iraq have been quite anxious to retain an autonomous Kurdish area with the blessing of the imperialists. During the 1991 imperialist war against Iraq, Barzani and Talabani both appealed directly to the imperialist powers. Shortly after Iraq moved into Kuwait, Talabani initiated discussions with some American senators in Washington. Barzani signaled his readiness for joint action with the United Nations, the fig–leaf for imperialist aggression (cited in B. Nirumand, Die Kurdische Tragödie). When the U.S. rulers made it clear that they took a dim view of the “Lebanonization” of Iraq, Talabani asked the Turkish president Özal to try to persuade George Bush to overthrow Hussein.

During the subsequent uprising of the Iraqi Kurds against Hussein’s murderous repression, which included the infamous gas attacks, the bourgeois Kurdish resistance combined their operations with the British and U.S. secret services. When the revolt was suppressed, the imperialists stepped in and declared the Kurdish territory in Iraq to be a “security zone” that was off limits to Hussein’s troops. This is now being enforced by U.S. and other warplanes based in Turkey.

As revolutionary internationalists, we recognize that the Kurds in Iraq are entitled to regional autonomy if they wish. But we are unconditionally opposed to any kind of imperialist intervention against Iraq, including that undertaken beneath the hypocritical banner of “protecting” the Kurds. Moreover, as the present difficulties of the Iraqi Kurds demonstrate, “autonomy” is not a viable option. Baghdad responded to the creation of a “security zone,” established by imperialist diktat, by imposing a blockade in September 1991 which has left the Iraqi Kurds dependent on the U.S. and the European Community for basic supplies.

The political corruption of the bourgeois Kurdish parties in Iraq is revealed by their anxiety to retain an “autonomous” Kurdish area in Iraq at any cost. To this end, Barzani and Talabani have recently combined militarily with the Turkish army in a struggle against guerrillas of the competing Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) based in Turkey.

The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK)

The PKK is the best known and largest leftist organization in Turkish Kurdistan today. One reason for its accelerated growth in recent years has been its uncompromising refusal to collaborate with the Turkish regime. Because of this, thousands of PKK fighters have been mercilessly hunted down and murdered under both the Turkish military regime and its civilian successors.

Ankara’s terror against the Kurdish population has created mass support for the PKK. The Turkish regime has pressured the leaders of the tribes and clans to take up arms against the PKK in alliance with the Turkish army. Ankara’s tools range from outright bribes to threats to destroy whole villages. If the clan heads agree to collaborate in suppressing the PKK, the entire village is considered a party to the deal because the chief’s word is law. In the past, the PKK has responded to this “system of village guardians” by themselves butchering whole villages. Today the PKK officially dissociates itself from such acts of indiscriminate terror.

In the 1980s the PKK also discredited itself by the practice of liquidating its internal and external critics (including former members). These criminal practices, derived from the PKK’s Stalinist ideology, made it easy for European police agencies, in cooperation with the Turkish secret police, to persecute PKK supporters and to treat the entire Kurdish resistance in exile as criminals. In Germany, in particular, dozens of Kurds have been arrested on the flimsiest pretexts and are facing trial as possible “PKK terrorists.”

As Trotskyists we reject the Stalinist practices of the PKK, and we oppose any anti–working class actions that its members may have carried out. Nevertheless, the workers’ movement in Germany must defend the accused in the so–called “PKK Trial” [a sinister conspiracy trial now underway in Germany] in order to stop the criminalization of the Kurdish resistance in Germany. Such a defense is not only an elementary obligation of international solidarity, it is also a concrete protest against the close cooperation of Germany and Turkey in the suppression of the Kurds.

The PKK is a petty–bourgeois guerrilla movement with a program that reflects the retarded development of capitalism in Kurdistan. The PKK’s description of their goal as a “peoples’ revolution,” is taken straight from the vocabulary of Stalinist class collaborationism. In an interview published in 1992, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s undisputed leader, defined his group’s objectives as follows:

“What we stand for, we call radical democracy….This means that we are not defined by classic principles. We are not a communist movement. We are neither a nationalist nor an Islamic religious movement. These currents are criticized by us. One thing is clear. We are no narrow minded nationalists. We stand against any form of nationalism. We will not be taken in by bureaucratic socialism in any case and we are also against the idea of economic competition.”
Ez Kurdim Ich bin Kurdin, Schumann/Goeb/Ulutuncok

The cross–class character of this “people’s revolution” becomes clear in Ocalan’s explanation of the PKK’s occasional reference to socialism: “When we refer to scientific socialism we mean a socialism that stands above the interests of the state, the nation, and the classes.” This conception of socialism reflects the fact that, despite its name, the PKK is a petty–bourgeois nationalist formation, programmatically incapable of forging the necessary alliances with the Persian, Arab and Turkish workers’ movements.

According to the New York Times (24 November 1992) PKK fighters from Turkey “moved into the area [northern Iraq] after Western forces established a Kurdish enclave” following the 1991 imperialist war against Iraq. The same article reports that in November 1992 the PKK units in the area had suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of an unholy alliance between the bourgeois KDP and PUK peshmergas and the Turkish army. Kurdish and Turkish militants, as well as the entire international workers’ movement, have a duty to defend the PKK against the Turkish generals and their Kurdish quislings. According to the NYT article:

“Leaders of the Iraqi Kurds now hope that their military role against the Turkish Kurds will win them favor in Ankara, whose support may prove important in allowing them to maintain their own regional autonomy.”

Imperialism, Permanent Revolution and Kurdistan

Again and again the PUK, KDP and other bourgeois–nationalist formations in Kurdistan have ensnared themselves in the spider web of imperialist interests. In this they act as fitting representatives of the weak, stunted Kurdish bourgeoisie. Their manifest incapacity to consistently represent bourgeois–democratic interests vindicates a central thesis of Leon Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution:

“With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi–colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses….

“But the alliance of these two classes [the proletariat and the peasantry] can be realized in no other way than through an irreconcilable struggle against the influence of the national–liberal bourgeoisie.”
—Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution

The tasks of the bourgeois–democratic revolution can only be accomplished by the workers, supported by the peasant masses. However, as was definitively proven by the October 1917 revolution in Russia, the proletariat cannot limit its struggle to the fight for bourgeois democratic rights. Only by going beyond such limited aims in a struggle for socialist goals (i.e., for a workers’ and peasants’ government and the expropriation of the ruling classes) can these rights be secured.

Every oppressed nation in the Near East which aspires to independence poses a profound threat to the brittle bonapartist regimes of the region. All four capitalist states that sit on top of the Kurds have, at different points, used the Kurds as diplomatic or military pawns in their rivalries with each other. The imperialist powers also use the Kurdish question for their own purposes, but in the imperialists’ game, the Husseins, Khomeinies, Assads and Özals are themselves only chess pieces. If they overstep their narrowly circumscribed spheres of influence, they are soon brought up short by their masters (as Hussein discovered after he annexed Kuwait).

Despite the imperialist lip service to “human rights” for the Kurds, the question is of interest to the great powers only in so far as it can be used to advance their own interests in the Near East. The U.S., for example, would like to overthrow the Hussein regime, but is not interested in carving a Kurdish territory out of northern Iraq because this could destabilize the entire region.

German imperialism is playing a growing role in the Middle East, and is historically well placed by virtue of its (legal and illegal) transactions with Iraq, Iran and especially Turkey. The weeping and wailing of the German rulers about Turkey’s use of German tanks in Kurdistan is completely hypocritical, as the 14 July 1992 issue of Berlin’s Tagesspiegel makes clear:

“It is not only economic reasons that stand in the way of denouncing the continued violations of human rights but above all political considerations that dictate the extreme urgency for a revival of German–Turkish relations….The view that Turkey will in the future hold the rank of a key power that can contribute essentially to stability in Eastern Europe, in the Balkans, in the Near East and in Middle Asia is one that is not limited to Edzard Reuter, Chairman of Daimler Bent AG alone.”

The German imperialists’ criticisms of Turkey’s oppression of “its” Kurds are usually intended merely as a form of diplomatic pressure on Ankara for concessions over other issues. Occasionally these criticisms do signal “real concern” over the wisdom of a particular policy. For example, Herr Fellermaier, chair of the Social Democratic party leadership’s group for coordinating Turkish policy, worried that: “Because of the brutality of these [Turkish] troops who have no regard for any human rights…the locals would really be pushed into the arms of the radical separatist Kurdish Workers Party” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 8 August 1992).

For the Right of Self–Determination for the Kurds!

The PKK has established a reputation for its unconditional support of an Independent Kurdistan. The appropriateness of raising such a demand as part of an internationalist program for the working class in the Near East is a question that must be posed in the context of the Bolshevik experience on the national question.

The right of self–determination is simply a recognition of the equal right of all nations to establish their own states. The working class of an oppressor nation can only free itself by opposing every attempt by its own bourgeoisie to oppress other nationalities. In those states which presently occupy parts of Kurdistan, class–conscious workers must militantly fight against the national oppression of the Kurds, and forthrightly defend their right to self–determination. Only through opposing the chauvinism of their own bourgeoisie, can the Turkish, Persian and Arab workers and peasants advance their class interests.

Upholding the right to self–determination for the Kurds does not imply support to the PUK and KDP’s schemes to achieve “autonomy” under the auspices of one or another imperialist or regional regime. The autonomy they advocate could be little more than a miserable (and probably short–lived) compromise with the oppressor regimes. While it would no doubt provide privileges for the various Kurdish politicos in charge of administering the arrangement, for the masses it would be little more than a veiled form of chauvinist oppression by the ruling nation. It would not fulfill the democratic aspirations of the brutally oppressed Kurds for equal political and cultural rights. In practical terms the call for “autonomy” by the various bourgeois parties is a cover for collaboration with the oppressor capitalist states.

Advocacy of the right of national self–determination does not necessarily imply advocacy of its implementation at any given point. As Lenin remarked: “our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self–determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self–determination” (Lenin, “The National Question in Our Programme,” 1903).

In the present circumstances an independent Kurdish state would find itself in very great difficulty. The situation would be even worse if such a state were limited to a fragment of Kurdish territory—for example Turkish Kurdistan. Not only would such a mini–state be entirely landlocked and surrounded by its historic oppressors, but it would be a society characterized by backward, pre–capitalist social structures. Because of its underdevelopment, an independent Kurdistan would find itself at the mercy of the regional as well as imperialist powers.

Kurdistan is not a classical case of a colonial revolution, as for example, China and Vietnam were earlier this century. In both these cases, the proletariat was small, but with sufficient economic and political power to lead the peasantry in a successful assault on both the imperialist masters and their indigenous bourgeois allies. One of the peculiarities of the Kurdish national question is that it is intertwined with the social question in the states with Kurdish minorities and, through them, in all the states of the Near East. The fight for freedom of the Kurds requires a common struggle with the Turkish, Persian and Arab working masses. Any serious threat to capitalist rule in Turkey, for example, must inevitably pose the question of the Kurds. The Kurdish struggle for national liberation, on the other hand, could easily spark a wave of upheavals that would shatter the brittle regimes of the region.

For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!

The Kurdish bourgeoisie is so weak that it does not even pretend to be leading a struggle for Kurdish freedom. This task falls to the Kurdish working class, at the head of the peasants and other oppressed layers. Those militants who are committed to winning equal national rights for Kurds must embrace a strategy of common struggle with the working class of the nations that oppress them. In Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq the struggle against the oppression of the Kurds is closely connected with the overthrow of the bourgeois dictatorships. It is extremely unlikely that the dismembered Kurdish nation can be reunited on any road other than that of the struggle for a socialist federation of the Near East. The eventual character of relations between the Kurdish nation and the other nations of the region under the rule of the working class cannot be specified in advance. This is something that the Kurds will decide for themselves. But the opportunity to make this choice will require a wave of victorious proletarian revolutions.

The PKK’s advocacy of an independent Kurdistan, without taking into account the problems posed by the social and political realities faced by the Kurds, and without any socialist content, is a dead end. As Leninists, we of course support the right of national self–determination. We are not opposed in principle to raising this as a demand. But pushing for an independent capitalist Kurdistan, against the wishes of the feeble Kurdish bourgeoisie, and with the bulk of the Kurdish people indifferent, makes no sense at all. Moreover, such a perspective could turn Kurdish revolutionaries away from the necessity to participate in, and, if possible, initiate struggles of the workers and peasants against the existing oppressor states. The most practical way to drive forward the struggle for Kurdish national freedom is by driving forward common class struggles to overthrow the oppressor despots of the region.

The struggles that are taking place today in the Near East prove that this revolutionary internationalist perspective is profoundly realistic. When the question of Turkish participation in the imperialist aggression against Iraq was floated by Ankara in 1991, spontaneous protest demonstrations broke out in Turkish Kurdistan, which soon spread to the Turkish working class. The slogans of these demonstrations were picked up in early January 1992 by Turkish and Kurdish metal workers and miners, who struck together for higher wages. In order to cling to power during the national general strike that followed, Turkish president Özal had to rely on the support of the trade–union bureaucracy while granting a series of wage hikes.

To turn such struggles into a successful fight against the rulers, it is necessary to create revolutionary organizations, rooted in the working class, armed with a correct programmatic orientation. Essential elements of a revolutionary program for Kurdistan must include: the right of Kurdish self–determination; the overthrow of the capitalist regimes headed by Özal, Rafsanjani, Hussein and Assad; the creation of workers’ and peasants’ governments, committed to severing the connection to the imperialist world order through the expropriation of capitalist property, and, finally, for a socialist federation of the Near East, within which the Kurds can decide on their own future.